I'm the opposite extreme—and that's not healthy either. I tend to berate myself for the stupid things I've done in my life—and all the clever things I failed to do. There's not much point in replaying those mistakes—unless you can learn something from it.
Of course, that's the conceit of articles about life's regrets. The latest of that genre is from tech entrepreneur Daniel Gulati. In the Harvard Business Review Blog Gulati describes the top five career regrets:
1. "I wish I hadn't taken the job for the money." In his study, Gulati finds that the "biggest regret of all came from those who opted into high-paying but ultimately dissatisfying careers."
2. "I wish I had quit earlier." Most who eventually left their jobs to pursue their true passions expressed regret that they had not done so earlier, says Gulati.
3. "I wish I had the confidence to start my own business." Once they stashed away enough money, Gulati finds, most professionals "yearned for more control over their lives," meaning they wanted to "become an owner, not an employee in someone else's company."
4. "I wish I had used my time at school more productively." One example of this regret is hurrying through the college years, which, as one biology researcher recounted to Gulati, "were the best and most delightfully unstructured years of my life."
5. "I wish I had acted on my career hunches." Though Gulati calls them "hunches," I think he's actually talking about risks/challenges not taken. (He cites an investment banker who declined to lead a team into Latin America, thus missing a key opportunity for promotion.) The key, Gulati says, is to identify the "unpredictable but potentially rewarding moments of change, and jumping on these opportunities."
I can't really quarrel with Gulati's list, except for a few points. First, I'm not sure it's so awful to take a job for the money. Why not sell yourself to the highest bidder and sock away the money so that you can eventually pursue the other things on that list? The trick, I guess, is not to be so sucked in by the big bucks that you can't leave when you're truly miserable.
As for starting your own business, I think the entrepreneurial thing has been oversold. It's not for everybody. Most lawyers I know—particularly those born and raised in big firms—would be helpless lambs on their own.
But my main quibble with Gulati is that he makes such a clean distinction between the professional and the personal. In fact, he pretty much omits the personal stuff altogether. Many people (or is it just women?) will tell you there's a big overlap between the two realms. Often, there's a lover or spouse who has influenced the trajectory of their careers. Sometimes that influence was wonderful and propelled their careers in unexpected ways. Oftentimes, it was an emotional drain, a career hindrance, and a big waste of time. The point is that the choices you make in your personal life can have a huge impact on your career.
Anything you'd like to add to that list of regrets? And do we really learn from our mistakes?
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